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What Is the Treatment for Arthritis in Horses?

By Jillian O Keeffe
Updated May 17, 2024
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Arthritis in horses is a term that describes joint inflammation, and there are many possible underlying causes for this painful condition. Possible treatments, therefore, will vary depending on what type of arthritis the horse has. Common medicines include steroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and injections of hyaluronic acid. Arthritis caused by injury may be curable through surgery, and rest and physical therapy may also help. Most forms of arthritis in horses are not curable, and the aim is to alleviate the symptoms and arrest the progress of inflammation.

According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, five major forms of arthritis occur in large animals like horses, including traumatic arthritis from injuries. Osteochondritis dissecans is a type of arthritis in young horses which results from incorrectly grown cartilage. Subchondral cystic lesions are areas of damage in the joint that create a localized cyst. Septic arthritis is the fourth cause of arthritis in large animals, and is the result of an infection in the joint. Osteoarthritis is the presence of cartilage damage that continues to degrade over time, and is typically the result of the other forms of arthritis in horses that have not been treated or controlled effectively.

When a horse injures itself, it can experience traumatic arthritis. Causes of this include tearing of the joint capsule and fractures of the surrounding bone and cartilage, and all of the causes result in inflammation of the joint. Surgery is one option for treatment, if chips of bone, or loose fragments of damaged joint components, are causing the inflammation. Mild cases may get better through rest and physical treatments like applying ice to the area, or swimming. NSAIDs are commonly used to reduce inflammation, but steroids like betamethasone and triamcinolone acetonide are options, as is the stronger, but riskier, steroid methylpredisolone acetate.

Osteochondritis dissecans is often treatable with surgery. Subchondral cystic lesions is also amenable to surgery, or injections of steroids. Septic arthritis in horses requires antibiotic treatment to kill off the infectious organisms. The joint may also need surgery and fluid removal, and NSAID medication can accompany the other treatments.

Osteoarthritis is not normally curable, as the horse has degraded joint components that are not amenable to a permanent fix. Instead, treatments attempt to arrest the degradation and alleviate the symptoms of the arthritis. Steroids and NSAIDs are options, as are supplements of substances that normally make up joints like polysulfated glycosaminoglycans or hyaluronic acid.

New treatments such as antibody injections may also be able to improve the condition of the joint. If the animal is important for breeding and not for racing or jumping, then a vet may be able to perform a surgery that fuses the affected joint, to reduce pain and improve the animal's quality of life. New treatments such as antibody injections may also be able to improve the condition of the joint, and traditional physical therapy like icing the joint can also be beneficial to the horse.

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